With the US withdrawing support for the disability treaty from the right bank and critics in the tech sector flanking the left at the World Conference on International Telecommunications recently more discussion over what drives concerns in the latest “sovereignty wars” seems in order. David Bosco obliges, noting a 2002 Yale Law Journal article that gives treaties a “so-so” assessment for effectiveness and points to Erik Voeten’s analysis, as well.
So if the practical impact of the U.S. rebuff is likely minimal, why all the alarm? The answer, I suspect, has less to do with the rights of disabled around the world than the health of America’s image. Internationalists desperately want the United States to be–and to be seen as–a country that embraces human rights treaties. My sense is that most U.S. internationalists want this not because they believe these instruments will have a significant effect (the evidence on that point is decidedly mixed). Still less are they anticipating that these instruments will force the United States to change its own behavior. Instead, U.S. participation in these treaties is desirable because it signals a certain national orientation, including respect for international opinion and support for the project of advancing international law and institutions.
If I’m right about this, that makes these human rights treaties largely symbolic for U.S. internationalists. And that in turn suggests that internationalists should be far less shocked when those with a different view of the international law project treat even inoffensive treaties as proxies in a larger struggle.